Harry Benson is a photojournalist. At 93 years old, Harry is still a photographer who documents humanity with his heart and with a conviction to stop time and preserve a slice of history to share with the world.
Harry and Gigi Benson sitting outside their apartment.
Photo by Charles Hahn
Harry, a trained Fleet Street photographer, considered himself to be a serious journalist. On an early January day in 1964, Harry had the intentions of going to Africa on a political assignment. The night before, however, he received a call telling him to go to Paris instead to cover an up-and-coming band the Beatles.
A couple of days later, the Beatles broke through with their concert at the Olympia Theater in Paris on January 16, 1964, and Harry was there to photograph it. “The story had gone from a music story to a major news story. They were a phenomenon and I was going to New York with them.” Harry later related to me.
Sunday, February 9, 1964
It was the first week of February 1964, and I was 6 years old and a 1st grader at Maplemere Elementary School in Williamsville, New York, a suburb of Buffalo. All week the kids at school were talking about a band called the Beatles and that they were going to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show.
On Sunday evening of February 9, 1964, I was sitting at the end of my parents’ bed. Two and a half feet away was the short dresser and on it was our 14-inch black and white television. The Ed Sullivan Show was starting and I was adjusting the two antennae for the best reception possible. And then, there they were: the Beatles. The next hour changed my life, as it did for many other young people in America. This was my introduction to long hair and rock ‘n roll.
The Beatles playing on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Photo by Harry Benson
Little did I know at that time, the man behind the scene photographing them, Harry Benson, would someday become the person I would idolize as much as the Beatles.
Monday June 26, 2023. 2pm.
The Uber driver pulls up to the apartment building on the upper east side of Manhattan. Cheri, my assistant, and I pile out of the car after the roughly half hour drive uptown from Greenwich Village. With a couple of photography bags and a tripod in tow, we enter the foyer area of the building where we are greeted by the doorman.
“May I help you?” the doorman asks.
“Hello, I’m Charlie Hahn and this is Cheri. We are here to see Harry and Gigi Benson.” The man reached for the phone and dialed a number, “Hello, Mr. Charlie is here. Okay.” “Mrs. Benson said to go on up, just take the elevator right there.” He points across the foyer.
After a short ride up the elevator, we knock on the apartment door and are greeted by middle-aged lady who asks us to come in. “You can put your bags down and they should be with you shortly.”
We placed our bags down off to the side and look up to see our surroundings. We are in a living room and just steps away are windows which look outside to a terrace with a privacy fence. Glancing around we see comfortable-looking chairs and a sofa with a coffee table where a few of Harry’s books rest. The walls are covered with very large photographs which I recognize from photography books and magazines that I have seen many times throughout the years. These prints include Harry’s iconic Beatles pillow fight and Mohammad Ali and the Beatles in a boxing ring. Wow!
Mohammad Ali meets the Beatles.
Photo by Harry Benson
“Hello?” a lady’s voice calls out from a dimly lit hallway leading to the family room. Gigi, an attractive middle-aged lady is walking towards us. She is fairly thin with blonde shoulder length hair.
“Hi there,” I, reply.
“Hi, how are you?” Gigi says back. “I’m trying to get my shoe on right.”
“Take your time. I’m Charlie and this is Cheri.”
“Okay, sit down.”
“Where would you like us?”
“Any ole chair.” Gigi says. “You’ll do better in a chair then the couch cuz then the dogs will leave you alone better. Okay well Harry sits there.” Gigi points to the couch, “and ya’ll sit anywhere else. I’m going to let the dogs out then.”
“Oh, just let them out,” Cheri responds.
A tall slender man appears in the hallway walking towards us.
“Harry, this is Charlie and Cheri.”
“Well, hi there,” Cheri says.
“Hi there, nice to meet you,” Harry replies.
Two small puppies enter the room barking away trying to figure out who these visitors are. One a light brown pug and the other a black dachshund.
Smiling, Harry jokes, “These are my daughters.”
“We have four dogs, they’re like our children.” I say.
“How was England, did you enjoy it? You had a gallery show there in England and I hope it was successful.”
“Yeah, I did, well I’m from Scotland.” Harry replied with his Scottish accent. “Yeah,” Harry said. “Well, they told me it was nice and that’s good enough.”
“Is that a pug?” Cheri points to the little puppy.
“She’s a rescue from Korea.” Gigi says. “Our daughter rescued her. The pug is Daisy and the dachshund is Tilly. Tilly jumps up onto Harry’s lap on the couch. Harrys face lights up. “This is my daughter.”
Harry with Tilly
Photo by Charles Hahn
“It makes your whole life them dogs. I mean, I’ve always had a dachshund. They’re all replacements,” Harry jokes.
Gigi talks about the problems of leaving your dogs when go away, and she recalls what happened to Harry on one of his trips, “Harry had to go down the chute. His plane got hijacked one time. They actually shot that guy. A sharp shooter did.”
“Where were you traveling to?” I ask Harry.
“Chicago or LA.”
“The guy wanted to go to Italy to see his girlfriend,” Gigi says.
“The guy was nuts, you know. There were a lot of hijackings in the 70s. We were at the runway and I saw a man come up to the captain’s cabin with a gun. Then the pilot says, ‘There’s going to be a delay because a gentleman on board doesn’t want to go Chicago.’ And they went and killed the bastard. He asked to go to Milan and they told him he couldn’t go to Milan. If he actually thought it, it means he was really a head case,” Harry said of the potential hijacker.
Ron Galella's book party
Gigi kindly passes out hot tea and chocolate chip cookies.
“Thanks, so much, this is very nice.” I say.
“Do not let the dogs eat the cookies.” We all chuckle.
Gigi asks, “Were you at Ron Galellas’ last birthday party?”
“No, we went to visit Ron in October of 2021.” I reply.
“Were you at his book party?” Gigi adds, “Harry and I were there. We went with Staley-Wise people. We’ve never been out there before, it’s way out. At his house every single picture was up,” Gigi notes.
“Did you photograph him?” Harry asks.
“Yeah, they’re such nice people. Ron is a real delight to be around. Kathy (Ron’s assistant) was great too,” I add.
“Did you happen to see Harry’s documentary? Well, something Ron said in the documentary is that Harry got invited to all the events, and Ron had to crash them all.”
“Have you run into Ron out there in the world while working?” I ask.
“I ran into him and we had a drink a couple of times, you know?” Harry adds, “Have you ever seen a celebrity being chased up the road by a photographer? You know it’s not a pretty site. It’s a horror show, a little bit demented. He didn’t mind running in front of people.”
“What did you always say that Jackie Kennedy should have done?” Gigi says to Harry. “You always said Jackie should have just sat still for a few minutes and let him have all the photos he wanted.”
“She’s famous, what the heck,” Harry replies. “You had to be a bit touched to do that. It’s crazy. Magazines used it though and they paid for it, you know.”
Harry relaxing with Daisy
Photo by Charles Hahn
Film and Life Magazine
We started discussing the old days and the use of film while photographing the Beatles pillow fight. “We shot film and went to digital in 2000. Film just kind of disappeared the same as you right? We really didn’t think about it,” Harry says.
Gigi notes, “By the time Harry started working for Life, they had this huge lab. They did it all. They did the developing and the contact sheets, and the color developing.”
“I prefer black and white,” Harry adds. “120mm with the Rolleiflex or a Hasselblad. Pointing up to the Beatles pillow fight photo on the wall, “That’s a Rollei and that’s a Rollei.” Harry points to the photo of Mohammad Ali with the Beatles.
The Beatles Pillow Fight
Photo by Harry Benson
A moment with the Beatles
“In the pillow fight I was there alone in the room with them. The strobes were better back then they are now, they were more powerful and it was able to stop the action. That would be at about F8 you know, about 125th. The pillow fight went on for nearly 2 rolls of 12 exposures. I wanted it on a Rolleiflex because it’s a quick shutter and it’s a real. . . . I wanted it square (The format of a Rolleiflex is 6 x 6). The Rolleiflex is a great camera. It gave me a career, it gave me money, you know. It’s just a better camera.”
The process of film and Life Magazine
“Harry, when you were on the road for an assignment, what was your process to get the photos back to Life Magazine?” I ask.
“While on an assignment for Life Magazine, sometimes I sent the film in. Sometimes I had to develop and print it and wire it from my bedroom (hotel room). I put the enlarger on the lavatory seat. When you finish it and dry them off, you know the chemicals, I’m sure that some people could smell it. Once that you were finished, you really didn’t care. Sometimes I had to wire it to London. I didn’t enjoy doing it because it was hard and you go to transmit, people can get on your phone and mess it up. It’s hard work. It’s hellish. I would take it to AP if I could get away with it. If I didn’t want them to know. It would really make a difference because there were so many places it was going out to.”
“Were you employed by Life Magazine?”
“Did you lose any rights to your pictures at any time?”
“No, no. That’s one thing. It was yours and you could pick them up whenever you wanted. Some people left their photographs with them (Life). I didn’t want them to be left there so anybody could use them. I used the Rolleiflex more than anything else. I’m glad I did that with the Rolleiflex.” Harry points to the Beatles pillow fight photograph on the wall.
“Did you have a backup camera or an extra with you?”
“It’s a very good point because you can take too much with you. It’s a pain in the ass. I would take the Rolleiflex, 2 Nikons and 5 lenses. Photography was good for me. I don’t know what I would have done if I had to work for a living. I felt fortunate. It’s what we could do and get away with. I was probably about 16 when I picked up the camera for the first time. I knew it was the only way I could go.”
“When you were young did you ever imagine doing what you’ve done, or were you thinking of being a doctor or something else?”
“I knew I wasn’t going to be anything important.”
“No, no doctor,” Gigi quips. Gigi goes on to say, “I tell you at one point I thought that what I should have done rather than go to graduate school was go to law school. Photographers need a lawyer or somebody to explain to them what copyright infringement is and how to sign those contracts when they send them over.
A very hectic lifestyle
When sent on assignments by Life Magazine Harry had to leave home at the spur-of-the-moment. “It was always important to get on it quick. You didn’t want any delays. And you wanted to beat the bastards. The ones (people) I was going to photograph knew I was coming. I didn’t have the newspapers or the magazines do my booking of the planes. They would fly me second or third class or, 200 class. Simple as that. They were going to pay for it anyway, you know. So, Gigi would book all of my flights.”
Gigi adds, “We would be having Christmas dinner and the phone would ring, Harry would finish his meal and get on a plane to go do a job. There are more disasters around holidays than any other time.”
“Disasters always happen around holidays,” Harry says. “And you don’t take your wife on an assignment.”
“Harry would always tell me: bankers don’t take their wives to the office. Before we got married, he would take me on assignments and after we got married, I wouldn’t go on another one.”
Harry says, “I couldn’t leave her to be taken.”
Gigi remembers, “There’s two racing (horse racetracks) tracks here, Aqueduct and Belmont. Harry had an assignment to photograph Secretariat. I took him to the one that was empty and there was one guy sweeping up. And I asked him where Secretariat was and he said he was at the other one (track). We drove there got there at the end of this thing. He still got a picture.”
“I got him as he walked off. it was at the finish of the race. He looked like a cocker spaniel. Head way down.”
“One time Harry was really close (from another assignment) when Martin Luther King died, he was in a town close by for some other job and he just hopped on a quickly and got there. He knocked on the door of the room and Jose Williams was in there and he was mopping up blood and squeezing into a jar. Harry got there when nobody else got there. He was like an hour away. Within an hour he was in the room. It was like that fast.
Ethel Kennedy moments after Robert Kennedy was shot
at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, June 5, 1968
Photo by Harry Benson
On June 5, 1968 right after Bobby Kennedy had finished speaking at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. “Bobby said to me when walking away, ‘Harry, Harry, I’ll see you in Chicago.’ I turned to walk one way and then he got shot. Ethel was screaming up at me. You can’t fail, I had to do my job, you know. I do what I can. She’s screaming and nobody knows what to do, and Bobby died. I’m friends of the Kennedys.”
A gallery show
“How many pictures do you typically have in a gallery show?” I ask.
“You have to have at least 12 pictures that you absolutely like. Ones that only you could have taken. You know what I mean? Twelve and that can get you by. When someone criticizes you., you don’t want to talk to the bastard. The piece of shit. Let’s go outside. I like New York. Nobody bothers you unless you want them too. I’ve had a Dachshund all my life. Ever since I was 3 years old. One thing about the Dachshunds is that they don’t smell. I smell but not the dogs.”
“I haven’t noticed yet,” I joked.
“We’ve had Tilly about 11 years and she doesn’t like us discussing her age. I’ve always had a Dachshund. The main thing about a terrace is she can come out here and have a piss whenever she wants. I don’t have to take her down on the street. I just have to come out and pick up her shit. Isn’t that right, Tilly? I just take them out and they can do what they like. They can stay for 10 minutes, 20 minutes they can come in and I know, they can jump into my bed and not gonna pee on me. It’s very handy having a terrace. I can talk to myself and the dogs.”
“It’s nice to meet you too.”
Time to leave and we have a two-puppy escort out of the Benson’s apartment door, and Daisy and Tilly run to the elevator. “Hey you guys come back here,” Gigi says sternly.
Here I am photographing Harry and Daisy.
Photo by Cheri Swanson
To find more out about Harry Benson check out his website at https://harrybenson.com/
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